Bruce Springsteen - Nebraska

by Anthony Kuzminski

Bruce Springsteen recorded what he thought were demos on a 4-track tape recorder 35 years ago this week. The intention with his acoustic guitar and harmonica, was to provide a guide for the E Street Band to breathe life into them for Springsteen's sixth studio album.

The demo recording was haunting and proved challenging to replicate with the band. They eventually released ten of the songs as his sixth album, Nebraska, arguably Springsteen's most perfect record. Here is a review that was written in January 2009 during our Springsteen month.

What happens if life doesn't work out the way you planned? That was the question Bruce Springsteen pondered as he began to write his sixth album, the noir-like Nebraska. Recorded (mostly) on January 3, 1982 in his home bedroom, the end result wasn't originally planned to be released as a home demo. Springsteen had spent long periods of time in the studio on his previous three records and felt that if he came into the studio with recorded demos, it would speed up the recording process. Ironically, this proved to have the opposite effect. His first batch of songs for Nebraska were recorded by the E Street Band but something was missing. The desperate atmosphere created by Springsteen's voice, his guitars, a harmonica and a few overdubs provided more of an eerie sense of longing and peril than any band in the world ever could. The decision was made to release the home demo with minimal overdubs for official release. The barrier they faced at that point was whether or not the home demo could be mastered for an official release. This was 1982, before pro-tools made such tasks easy. There was even a period where a cassette release might have been the only release, but Chuck Plotkin found a way to master it, which became Springsteen's sixth album released in the fall of 1982. The album peaked at number-three, but quickly fell off the charts. However, time has been very kind to Nebraska and many view it as a top to bottom masterwork. In my humble opinion, even if you don't care for Bruce Springsteen's music, you have to admire certain aspects of his career and he has two out-and-out masterpieces; Born To Run and Nebraska. What steeps Nebraska so close to the consciousness of his fans is the stark atmosphere that inhabits it. Like old black and white photos inside a house, the spirits of these characters linger and disturb you long after listening to the record. The character sketches on Nebraska don't just find their way under your skin, but they stay there. For Nebraska, Springsteen dug back to his vivid childhood memories to create a collection of songs that aren't just unforgettable, they're demoralizing and distressing.

The album opens with the title-track, "Nebraska", which tells of the Charles Starkweather killings in Nebraska in 1957, which ironically are based around the Terrance Malick film entitled Badlands from 1973. "Nebraska" paints a vivid picture of the Starkweather killings paired with double tracked acoustic guitars are as chilling as any details about the murders. The narrator shows no remorse for his actions, it's not just dreadful, but downright ghastly. "Atlantic City" hones one of Springsteen's finest lyrics, "I got debts that no honest man can pay". It's remarkable how over a quarter of a century later that lyric shoots you right through the heart. 2009 and 1982 don't appear to be that far apart and even though times may change; people go to extremes to attempt to get their head above water. They may grow older, but their desperation for survival is just as crucial. "Mansion on the Hill" puts the listener in familiar territory where envy is on the menu. Characters dream of a better life and find solace in their dreams. The lead character in "Johnny 99" resigns himself to robbing banks after being let go from his job at a car factory. He is caught and sentenced to prison. The tongue-in-cheek nature of the judge ("Mean John Brown") who sentences him- "Prison for 98 and a year, we'll call it even Johnny 99" -may elicit a grin, but the album's resounding overall themes cut to the bone. The lyric (from "Atlantic City") appears once again in the final verse, "Judge, judge, I've got debts no honest man can pay". He pleads for death over prison, but before he's taken off, he takes responsibility for his actions, but tries to shine a light on the injustice of life; "But it was more than all this that put that gun in my hand". "Highway Patrolman" is about the sacrifices one makes for family versus their own career and life. These characters were eventually realized fully in Sean Penn's directorial debut, The Indian Runner The narrator has to choose between his job and his brother. He reminisces about the good times ("Laughing and drinking, nothing feels better than blood on blood") but when his brother creates a difficult situation for both of them, a decision needs to be made of whether to do his job, or allow his brother to escape. Nobody wins in the end and the first side of Nebraska ends on the same desolate plane as it started.

"State Trooper" was actually the song that closed the first season of The Sopranos. The song builds gently into a spooky tale where Springsteen's music compliments the paranoia of the narrator. The convulsive echo and wail at the song's conclusion is as harrowing as they come.
"Used Cars" is pure misery. It's personal tale from Springsteen's childhood of his father buying a used car. Once again the car metaphor reigns supreme. It speaks of the brutal realities of life where his father finds pride in his hard work, but Springsteen witnesses his father demoralized by the salesman and how hard his father has to work to make a used car, not a new one, a reality. The child is completely aware of the fights, struggles and diminished feeling of the father; "Now, mister, the day my numbers comes in I ain't ever gonna ride in no used car again". "Open All Night" is the most foot stomping anthem on the album and the only one that incorporates an electric guitar where the narrator is trying to escape the numbness of his night job in hopes to see his "baby". People seek solace in creature comforts of this world and this is a man on the loose and out on the prowl. The songs final lyrics say it all, "deliver me from nowhere". "My Father's House" is anchored by a dream where things are at peace, but once awoken, the sins are still un-reconciled. Even when the storyteller tries to rectify this gap, he learns his father is long gone and so is their chance at salvation. On the album's concluding song, "Reason To Believe", redemption is void in each of the characters lives; a dead dog, a wife left by her lover and a groom left at the altar. Each misfortune is more bleak and dismal than the previous, but the characters share something void on the first nine songs; faith. "At the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe"-beneath all of the tragic circumstances that inhabit Nebraska the characters in the final hymn show us conviction. These people have bared witness to life's horrors and beneath their shattered souls is a fundamental belief of a better tomorrow. They shouldn't feel anything, but for some transcendent reason, they do. It's no mistake this is the album's closer, because after thirty-six minutes of calamity, there has to be a silver lining, no matter how small.

I found Nebraska at a used cd store while in college and the listening experience of it in my bedroom was a chilling wake-up call for me. It was also a watershed moment where Bruce Springsteen became an artist I didn't just admire, but one I knew I'd follow for the rest of my life. I found myself relating to these characters in a profound and concentrated way. Never in a million years was my lot in life anywhere near as bad as the spirits on Nebraska, but I felt broken, beaten and defeated by life. Pain is pain no matter what the situation. However, I occasionally had to step out of my shoes and realize that while I thought I knew this desperation and pain, I didn't. These characters are so defeated and flattened by life; their only escape would be death because they are experiencing hell on Earth. The pictures Springsteen paints are so lucid they may potentially haunt you more than any slasher film. Horror films aren't realistic, the characters in Nebraska are.

Throughout Springsteen's entire catalog, hope and despair go hand in hand, but on Nebraska the dreams of these characters have failed. What they are left with are callous realities that are pure nightmares. The undue stress of the world overcomes one in such a profound manner; these are the exact scenarios that take years off people's lives and transform them into shadows of their former selves. The conflict and strife these characters experience is life at its most despondent. There are no other options; no hope, no luck…no nothing. It's them against the world and as much as we would like to believe in a David and Goliath triumph, when you're facing something as immense as the world, the chances of overcoming it are nil. When I was once discussing the merits of Nebraska with a friend, he told me he admired the album, but could never listen to it on the road because as he put it, "I'd drive off into a ditch from the severe depression it would give me". Dealing with mental anguish few in life should endure, the souls who occupy Nebraska drown in distress. We've all encountered moments in life where we are pushed up against a wall where there appears to be no way out. Springsteen created a brave and meticulous record with rich characters. In creating a succinct and well crafted collection of songs, he has brought light to the hardships that every human endures. Springsteen's songwriting was at its peak on Nebraska. Later attempts at the same themes, specifically on The Ghost of Tom Joad, wouldn't be as compelling because I'm not sure if Springsteen would ever have a grasp on characters hopes, dreams and fears as mightily as he did on Nebraska. No other album I have ever listened to highlights the desperation as poetically through intuitive lyrics where these characters find no escape and even their dreams turn into nightmares. The pining acoustic guitars, solemn vocals and aching harmonica echo immeasurable sadness; these characters are well aware of their lot in life and their dreams are just that…dreams. One listen to any of the songs on Nebraska and it evokes the lamenting lyric from "The River", "Is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse". For the haunting voices of Nebraska, it's something worse. Order it here.

Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network and his daily writings can be read at The Screen Door and can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com.

Bruce Springsteen - Nebraska

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